Court monitor says violations persist at Miss. training schools

Published 10:53 pm Friday, July 21, 2006

A federal court monitor says “setbacks” have hampered Mississippi’s progress in correcting some problems at its two training schools for juvenile offenders.

Last May, the state of Mississippi entered a four-year consent decree to end a Department of Justice lawsuit over abuse allegations at Oakley Training School in Hinds County and Columbia Training School.

Joyce L. Burrell has been monitoring the state’s progress, and some of her previous reports also have been critical.

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“Although it would have been unlikely that the state would have met all the goals of the consent decree and memorandum of agreement by now, it was reasonable to expect more progress than has been achieved,” Burrell wrote.

Documented abuse of students, staff shortages, inadequate sanitation and facility maintenance are among the violations noted in the latest report, which covers the period from Dec. 15, 2005 to April 30, 2006.

The schools serve a total of 550 youthful offenders — boys ages 10 to 17 at Oakley and girls 10 to 18 at Columbia.

Don Taylor, executive director of the state Department of Human Services, which oversees the training schools, said he’s working on a plan of action and a timetable for compliance.

Taylor and House Juvenile Justice Committee Chairman George Flaggs Jr., D-Vicksburg, said Thursday that increased state funding would be required to make all the court-ordered improvements at the schools.

Flaggs, a member of the Joint Legislative Budget Committee, said DHS can make its funding case to the panel when it begins hearings this fall.

“The report doesn’t look good,” Flaggs said. “At the same time, we have to accept some of the criticisms because we have not adequately funded Oakley and Columbia training schools.”

In the report, Burrell wrote that Mississippi had “setbacks” that were caused because there wasn’t enough staff to provide coverage. She also said there were numerous abuse complaints at Oakley.

Burrell said one of the more serious abuse allegations led to conference calls initiated by the Justice Department and a special trip to the state by a federal investigator.

Her report comes a week after DHS was named as a defendant in a $10 million federal lawsuit filed by the mother of a former Columbia student. The lawsuit alleges a male employee at Columbia of sexually assaulted the woman’s daughter in August 2005.

Taylor, without addressing any specific incident, said several workers have been fired within the last year over abuse issues. He said not all were “egregious” assaults, but any incident in which an employee “crossed the line.”

Taylor said DHS’s youth services division has 58 vacancies for permanent positions and 26 for time-limited positions.

In an effort to fill the jobs, he’s posted the vacancies on the agency Web site and he’s personally talked to ministerial organizations to assist in recruitment.

Burrell’s report also listed a lack of progress with addressing the medical and mental health needs of the students.

Taylor said meetings would be held with the Department of Mental Health to get the students the help they need.

“It took four years to get in that bad a shape and we’re certainly not going to get out of all the challenges over night. There’s no magic bullet,” Taylor said of the violations.